Sunday, October 14, 2007

Red Robin's Siren Song

I cheated on Friday. We went out to Red Robin for lunch. No reason. In fact, many reasons NOT to go: I had food at home, my husband had brought a lunch to his office, and my kid was recovering from a stomach bug. But it was fun to have lunch together on the spur of the moment, and it was a nice family outing.

But as soon as I saw the picture of the Whiskey BBQ Burger, I was a goner. I tried to talk myself into a nice salad, a garden burger, and a cup of soup, but no go. I really really really wanted that burger.

And you know what? There was no one to stop me. No one to say, "But Tienne, you've committed yourself to eating only vegetarian meals when you eat out." Or, "Isn't it bad enough that you're eating out when you have food at home? Are you really going to compound it by ordering a meal that harms the earth, exploits farm workers and exacerbates the global food crisis?" My conscience did say all these things, but I squashed it and looked at the picture again. Everyone around me was eating their burgers. My son was getting a cheeseburger. My husband was getting a turkey burger with avocado and goat cheese. My daughter was sleeping, so she's exempt, but the point is, I was alone and surrounded by temptation.

So I fell. And man, was it a tasty burger. I'm beating myself up about it, now, of course. I know better. It's not like I just forgot about my pledge to forgo meat when dining out. It's not like I was at a party where they only served hot dogs and brats. It's not like someone took me out to a steakhouse to celebrate their promotion and there weren't any vegetarian options on the menu. I deliberately tossed aside my values and embraced the pleasure of the moment, for no other reason than that I wanted to.

Everyone sins, of course. This website chronicles my journey because that's what I'm on. I don't have mastery over this by any stretch of the imagination. What saddens me most, though, is how easy it was to ignore my convictions. There's no accountability in my efforts to take the poor with me. Except for this website, which is faceless and (let's be honest here) only as transparent I as choose it to be, no one would know if I lived perfectly according to the philosophies I espouse or if I turned my back on every single one of them.

Well, God would know. And I believe my pricking conscience is His way of letting me know that he knows, and that I ought to know better. But in the moment of temptation itself, I can too easily ignore His voice.

It drives home to me the importance of community and fellowship. I learned in college how easy it is to sink to the lowest common denominator, and how proud and happy those denominators are when you join them. Pursuing virtue leaves you mostly alone, mocked at best and often accused of being judgmental, closed minded, or intolerant, of forcing your beliefs on others or considering yourself superior.

It's just SO EASY to give in to consumerism and indulgence. From TV commercials to billboards to advertisements in newspapers and magazines, our entire society is aimed at getting us to buy something we don't need. There's always a sale on somewhere, always a special discount if you buy more (Get one in each color! Stock up and save! Buy in bulk for maximum value!), always a drink special to go with that appetizer that looks so appetizing. And did you save room for dessert? When we do gather the willpower to resist the thousands of suggestions around us, too often our companions look at us askance, or make us feel as though we're making a statement about them and their decisions.

My parents came to visit a couple weekends ago. While they were here, my mother insisted on taking me to the grocery store because she wasn't happy with the state of my fridge. I'd just been shopping and had plenty of food, but I didn't have a few things she considered staples, like raspberries, yogurt, and bottled water. When I reminded her that we were trying to live simply, she got hostile. "Who are you trying to beat, Tienne? People starving in wooden huts? Because you'll never match them, no matter how austere you make your life."

It was hard to get her to understand that this isn't a competition. The point of taking the poor with me is not to live in abject poverty, starving myself and my family because there are people in the world who don't have basic needs. The point is to turn a hard eye on my spending and ask myself, "Do I really need this?"

One of the main challenges is that my eye is so skewed. To me, it feels like a huge sacrifice to go out to eat and NOT get the whiskey BBQ burger with onion crisps and cheddar cheese. Never mind that an entire menu of delicious options has just been presented to me, any one of which would amply satisfy my hunger and serve as an indulgence. Then to increase the challenge, those closest to me (like my mother) often hinder rather than help my efforts. As hard as it is to ignore the siren song of advertising, it is even harder to ignore the well-meaning but misguided pressure of friends and family.

How do we respond when a friend writes or calls to talk excitedly about the new flat screen TV they've just bought? Or when our newly engaged relative waggles her ring-finger proudly? Or the woman sitting next to us in church has a pair of the most beautiful open-toed pumps we've ever seen? When those around us are focusing on the fad of the moment, it's all the more difficult to keep our eyes and our interest on what truly matters.

Now Christmas approaches, the beautiful holy-day when we commemorate God's greatest gift to us: Himself, made flesh to dwell among us. But likely the only place we'll hear anything about that is at Mass. The rest of the time our senses will be bombarded with the dreaded countdown -- Only 17 shopping days left till Christmas! -- along with more incarnations of Santa than any sane person can stand. Katerina Ivanovna has a great post on this at Civilization of Love that contains some excellent suggestions for simplifying the season.

In the meantime, I'm working on a system to strengthen my resolve and enable me to turn away from temptation when it presents itself. I find it easier to give extra than to sacrifice something I want, so I need to counter these petty indulgences by giving something up. In return for eating that burger at Red Robin on Friday, I ordered nothing but a drink when we went to the bar to watch the Michigan game on Saturday. That was hard, let me tell you. Especially when my husband got his lunch and offered me a bite (which he never does under normal circumstances! I think he felt bad for me.) And because my mom spent so much on us while she was here, I'm trying to cut my weekly grocery budget to $50 for the next month.

It's supposed to have a bit of a punitive effect. Hopefully, next time I'm tempted I'll think about what I'll have to give up if I indulge myself, and will have the courage and conviction to order the soup and salad instead.


Zina said...

Your posting reminds me of the following link:

In my heart I am a vegan, but in the real world I really like bacon! It makes vegetable dishes so yummy. I watched the movie Babe and the special about how the movie was made. The producers talked about how sensitive and smart pigs are... but the wife in the movie was right about how pork is a nice sweet meat. Why did God have to make those beautiful creatures so tasty. It doesn't help that Filipinos celebrate major events with a huge roasted pig. It's part of my culture man.

We have a helpful excuse in that my baby is allergic to practically everything except rice, fish, meat and lettuce. That means all our protein has to come from animals.

Tienne said...

Zina, what an awesome ad! It really amazes me how the Catholic Church really is the Truth. No matter what the issue, the Church's position is just so consistent, so life-affirming, so right, that it must be divinely guided.

I hear you on the heart vs real world tug-of-war. I am SUCH a fan of all pig products. Salami, bacon, prosciutto, pork chops, ribs, you name it (well, not ears or feet) I love it. I firmly believe you can be healthy eating a completely vegetarian diet, and I also believe it's the most compassionate, humane and sustainable way of eating. But man...salami...

A said...

Hi, Tienne, I've just found your blog. You and I have a lot in common: we're a Catholic family, too, who tries to live mindful of the poor. We're vegetarians, and we share our house with people who are trying to get on their feet. We live simply.

We have seven children, and the oldest is 17. I see from your blog that you have two kids, but they're both young. I would love to hear your thoughts on raising children to be mindful of the poor. It's something I've struggled with these past, maybe 10 years, since my oldest was old enough to notice.

I don't want to make the pleasures of the world "forbidden fruit" for my kids, so that they wallow in them the minute they're free of us. I also don't want them to have the impression that living a Catholic life means living grimly. There was a time when I wondered how I could possibly justify buying any treats for my kids, seeing as other people's kids didn't have the bare necessities. I have since realized that to a certain extent, treats can be part of a healthy spiritual upbringing--my kids' souls are even more important than the lives of the poor, and what's more, they're my special duty. But I have never been clear on the line between helpful treats and harmful ones. We do try to offer free treats, like a trip to the park, over costly ones.

How have we done? Well, I don't know. The kids are all on board so far. They aren't attracted by materialism. But I know better than to take any credit for it, or to predict that we'll never have such a problem. Homeschooling them up to high school and not having a TV has been (I think) a big help.

Now I find a new problem: all the "extra" money I used to have is no longer "extra": I have college to think about.

I'd love to hear what you think of the whole question, which I've never quite resolved--we've just muddled along all these years as well as we could...

Tienne said...

Hi a! Thanks for stopping by.

You ask a great question, and I think I'll address it in a post, if that's okay. In brief though, I think you do exactly what it sounds like you're already doing. You raise kids simply and don't make a big deal out of acquiring material things, you teach them the value of money by encouraging them to save their allowance and when old enough to get a job, and you involve them in any charity work that you do in order to expose them to the way other people live.

I think you can definitely take SOME credit for having 7 kids that aren't materialistic! Surely some of them were born with a "proud taste for scarlet and miniver" but the atmosphere you've created in your family doesn't encourage that. I'm very impressed, really. :)